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William Lawes - 1602-1645

Wednesday, September 24, 1645.  The scene is Chester, in the north-west of England.  Since 1642 the country has been involved in bloody civil war between those loyal to the king, Charles I, and the forces of Parliament.  The Royalist city of Chester has been under a state of siege or semi-siege since the early part of the war, but two days earlier had rejoiced to learn that relief was at hand in the shape of a force led by the king himself.  But Parliamentarians, in hot pursuit of the king, had also converged on Chester.  During the course of the day skirmishes take place in the outskirts of the city and it is during one of these, so we are told, that a casual shot from a Parliamentarian found its mark, killing one of a group of headstrong Royalists who had rashly underestimated the strength of the opposition.  But although the man who fell fatally wounded was a loyal servant of Charles and indeed a member of his court, he was no professional soldier.  His name was William Lawes and by his untimely death on that autumn day England lost her greatest living composer.


The Enigmatic Romantic


Ill-focused though the exact circumstances of the death of Lawes remain, there is real irony in the fact that it is the only day in his life when we know exactly what was happening to him.  Few major composers have lives that are so sketchily documented.  We do know that he was born in Salisbury in 1602, where he was baptised on May 1 of that year.  His father Thomas was a lay vicar (professional singer) in the cathedral choir. Both William and his elder brother Henry, born six years earlier and also to become a significant composer, became members of the choir as boys.  William proved himself to be so musically gifted that he attracted the attention of Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford and a great patron of the arts in the Salisbury area.  According to the biographer John Aubrey the earl took young William into his own home, placing him under the tutelage of his household musical director, John Coprario.  Despite his name Coprario was an Englishman (he was born Cooper) who is believed to have Italianised his name during a trip to Italy and adopted Italian stylistic traits in his music.  As we shall later discover he would become the single most important influence on Lawes’ music.


Coprario was not the only influential figure the boy encountered Hertford’s Wiltshire seats at Amesbury and Wulfall, for amongst frequent visitors was a young prince, Charles, who on the death of his highly cultivated elder brother Prince Henry in 1612, became Prince of Wales and heir to the British throne.  Two years older than Lawes, Charles was also taking a keen interest in music and, like Seymour’s protégé learning the viol.  It is a likely and  pleasing scenario to imagine the two youngsters joining in a viol consort together.


When the prince came of age in 1617 he was enabled to establish a band of seventeen private musicians, some inherited from his brother, a number that had grown to twenty-four by the time of his accession in 1625.  At some point (exact dating has not been established) both William and Henry Lawes joined Charles’ musicians, but we have to move on to 1635 to find William being granted the royal patent as a member of the king’s "Lutes and Voices".  We know next to nothing about the life of the Lawes brothers while they were attached to Charles 1’s court.  William would obviously have been involved not only in private chamber concerts given for the king, but also more public performances such as the sumptuous court masques given at Inigo Jones’ magnificent Banqueting House in Whitehall, providing a considerable body of music for both.


The outbreak of the Civil War brought such lavish court patronage of the arts to an abrupt halt, although the eighteenth-century historian Sir John Hawkins suggested that private music making continued to flourish after the court moved from London to the safety of Oxford, a claim more recently contested.  Certainly William Lawes joined his sovereign in the university city, immediately listing in the army.  He was appointed a commissary in the king’s personal lifeguards, a rank that in theory should have kept him out of harm’s way.  Once again there are no records to provide specific information as to Lawes’ military service over the next three years, although his post would naturally imply that he was present at the fields of action involving Charles, including the Battle of Naseby on June 14 1645, the great turning point of the War.  And so to that fateful September day, a day after which the king was left to mourn the death not only of his boyhood friend, but also the nobleman Bernard Stuart, Earl of Lichfield.  The king’s reaction to the death of Lawes was famously recorded by Thomas Fuller in his History of the worthies of England (1662):  "Nor was the King’s soul so ingrossed with grief for the death of so near a kinsman, and Noble a Lord, but that hearing of the death of his deare servant William Lawes, he had a particular mourning for him when dead, whom he loved when living, and commonly called the Father of Musick". 


William Lawes’ death was mourned beyond the confines of court, inspiring numerous musical elegies from colleagues lead by his own brother ("Cease you jolly shepherds") and who include such composers as John Wilson, John Cobb, John Jenkins and John Hilton.  But perhaps the most poignant epitaph of all is to be found in the words of the Royalist poet Robert Herrick, words set by Lawes  in his most famous song: Gather ye Rosebuds while you may,/ Old Time is still a flying/And that same flow’r that smiles today,/Tomorrow will be dying.


What kind of picture of William Lawes can we build up from such frustratingly little evidence?  He is said to have been well-liked and a convivial companion, an impression possible supported by the large number of drinking songs and catches (a part-song that in itself has strong associations with drinking) he composed.  And one distinguishing feature of all the elegies mentioned above is that they are dedicated to the memory of "a friend" and several of the texts refer to "dear Will".  Can we sense, too, in the nature of his untimely death that the words of the third verse of Gather ye Rosebuds have biographical significance for a man whose nature also had its headstrong and impulsive side – That Age is best that is the first, While youth and blood are warmer?  That such questions cannot be answered with certainty somehow only makes Lawes a more intriguing and appealing figure, the attraction enhanced by the dashing Cavalier pictured in the famous portrait that now appropriately hangs in the Faculty of Music at Oxford.  Yet the portrait also reveals a man whose strong, handsome features are caught in a half-smile that fails to conceal a passionate intensity.  But above all it is in his music that William Lawes reveals himself to us as being a true, if enigmatic, romantic.


The Instrumental Works


Although it is difficult to believe that Purcell was not acquainted with William Lawes’ instrumental works when he came to compose his great Viol Fantazias, the posthumous reputation enjoyed by the latter seems to have been short-lived.  By the time he wrote his great musical history over a century later Charles Burney, who in general had little time for the music composed by his countrymen during the previous century, could find virtually nothing to commend in the music of William Lawes: "His Royal Consort…which was always mentioned with reverence by his admirers in the last century is one of the most dry, aukward [sic], and unmeaning compositions I ever remember to have had the trouble of scoring".  Whilst it is difficult to understand what the good Doctor might have found "dry" about the music, one might well sympathise with an eighteenth century taste that found certain movements from the Royal Consort Suites "aukward and unmeaning", for like all of Lawes’ instrumental music they contain passages that even today retain the power to startle or even shock.  


The Royal Consort Suites undoubtedly constitute the best introduction to the composer’s music.  Comprising of 66 pieces formed into ten suites, they were almost certainly amongst the works composed for private chamber concerts at he pre-war court.  They are scored for the unusual combination of two violins, two bass viols and two theorbos, a disposition that produces richly opulent sonorities.  Like most of Lawes’ concert works the emotional weight is firmly on the opening movements, which frequently last nearly as long as the remaining five or six movements put together.  These movements, generally a stylised pavan (two open with an "aire" and two with fantasias) are remarkable for the extraordinary range of mood encompassed.  Broad, calm melodies are disrupted by sudden bursts of great rhythmic energy, sweetly consonant polyphony by the kind of trenchant and disconcerting dissonance much beloved by English seventeenth- century composers, but never more potent than when employed by Lawes.  The remaining movements are mostly quicker dances, often notable for their rhythmic verve and occasionally florid violin parts that remind the listener of the Italian influences Lawes assimilated through his master Coprario.  Equally compelling are the lively folk-inflected dances, the occasional graceful corant (c.f.No.6, lV) and a pair of Ecco movements (Nos.1, Vll and 6, V), further evidence of Italian influence.


The employment of Italianate ornamental configuration and the influence of Coprario are also in evidence in the Sonatas (Fantasias) for one and two violins, bass viol and organ.  Each set consists of eight works that follow an identical sequence of both key and movement, suggesting they were designed to be complementary.  Both are markedly different in character to the Royal Consorts, with a greater emphasis on the contrapuntal mastery Lawes learned from Coprario and inhabiting a more introverted, at times elegiac world.  If the Royal Consorts convey images of the glittering artistic milieu of the Caroline court, the Sonatas inhabit a more intimate, private world that would soon fall apart in the "distract’d times" to come.  Each consists of three movements, a fantasia followed by an almaine and galliard.  Again it is the opening movements that carry the emotional weight, although the composer ensures that we are aware that these are serious chamber works by adding a slow and sometimes extensive coda to the concluding galliard.  If the violin writing at times recalls earlier Italian Baroque technique, the construction of Lawes’ music is far removed from such models and a considerable advance on that of Coprario.  In the fantasias in particular Lawes builds on terse, often fragmentary motifs that constantly undergo changes of mood and rhythm, at the same time employing an astonishing freedom in the interchange of material between the three or four instruments.  Particularly notable are the organ parts, far removed from their traditional continuo role and attaining a degree of emancipation unique in the music of this period.  Whilst the succeeding dance movements are more relaxed, the high spirits of many of the Royal Consort dances are almost totally absent here.  Instead there is elegance, even wit (Solo Sonata 8, l, with its playful exchanges between violin and organ).  But more than anything these remarkable works confirm Lawes as an audacious innovator who is ever capable of surprising the attentive auditor with a strange melodic twist or unexpected harmonic progression.  Veering sharply and alarmingly between calm luminescent beauty, courtly nobility and unruly, even dangerous indiscipline, the sonatas eloquently reveal the free, romantic spirit of their creator.

That quest for the innovative is also apparent in the seven "Harpe" Consorts, uniquely scored for violin, bass viol, harp and theorbo continuo.  While maintaining the principle of the dance suite, Lawes is here concerned with exploiting variation techniques, each work consisting of paired variations on dance movements by Lawes himself or others.  They include three large-scale pavans for bass viol, including one (No.10 G-minor) in which Lawes elaborates on a bass theme by Coprario that has recently been shown to include a quotation from a pavan by another composer who also influenced Lawes, Alfonso Ferrabosco (ll).


Whilst the chamber works with violin may be traced to influences already mentioned and an earlier generation of Caroline composers – amongst them Thomas Lupo and Orlando Gibbons – who introduced the violin to English contrapuntal music, Lawes’ viol consorts belong to a long and noble tradition that dated back to Tudor England.  There are nine in all, grouped some time after their composition under the generic title For ye violls, but more generally known as Consort Setts.  Five are scored in six parts, while the remaining four are five-part works, one part in each instance allotted to organ.  For all their heritage and the use of such old-fashioned techniques as cantus firmus (the 5-part G-minor sett, for example, has a second movement marked "On the Playnsong") the sheer majesty and romantic sweep of many of the movements is quite new to the viol consort.

Equally new is the sonority of Lawes’ part writing, the strongly etched basses and melodic interest in the treble parts introducing a polarity that contrasts distinctively with the closely-knit textures found in earlier consort works.  To an even greater degree than in the sonatas one finds in the consort setts the very essence of Lawes at his most inventive and profound.  One might cite numerous examples, including the incomparable Fantazia that opens the F-major Sett, a movement that appears to grow out of empty space to unfold placidly into spacious and luxuriant six-part harmony that evokes some tranquil Arcadian landscape.  Then there is the Pavan (lll) of the 5-part C-minor Sett, a discourse on Dowland’s Lachrimae motif of ineffable, transcendental beauty.  But the wild Lawes is here too, in the second of two Fantazias from the 6-part C-minor Sett, a movement of frenzied activity that hurtles forward as if driven by an unstoppable demonic energy.  That movement is succeeded by a remarkable setting of one of the oldest cantus firmus used by English consort composers, the In nomine, here not – as would formerly have been the case – buried in the middle of the texture but radiantly projected by the trebles and counterpointed beneath by the cavorting passage work of the lower instruments.  If the Royall Consorts represent the best introduction to Lawes, and the Sonatas find him at his most modern and striking, it is the Consort Setts that above all represent the true heart of the composer’s work.  They are to Lawes what the late String Quartets are to Beethoven.   


The Vocal Music


Conventional wisdom would have it that William Lawes’ vocal works yield pride of place to those of his brother Henry who devoted himself almost entirely to vocal music.  Yet it might be more accurate to suggest that William’s substantial body of both secular and sacred vocal music still awaits detailed assessment.  Of over 200 songs and nearly 70 anthems, only a handful have appeared on disc, whilst the recently published collection of essays derived from an Oxford conference to mark the 350th anniversary of Lawes’ death devotes only a single chapter to his vocal music, and that only to the songs he wrote for plays (see below).  It all leaves the Lawes enthusiast wondering what hidden treasure remains to be re-discovered.  The secular music covers a wide variety of forms – melodic strophic songs, songs in the fashionable dialogue form, bawdy ballads, boisterous drinking songs and catches all figure.  The texts of the more serious repertory are almost universally drawn from Cavalier poets, men who would have been known to Lawes and include Carew, Davenant, Suckling and, particularly, Herrick, one of the finest of all English lyric poets.  Many of the melodic songs are cast in simple strophic form and are often of memorable charm, the sweetly nostalgic Gather ye Rosebuds being only the most famous example.  The through-composed songs are generally more declamatory or rhetorical, as in the hauntingly lovely Herrick setting "To Sycamores" (I’m sick of love).


Both instrumental and vocal music had a vital, indeed crucial place in the Caroline theatre, and whilst no instrumental music for use in plays has to date been firmly ascribed to Lawes considerably more settings of play-lyrics by him survive than by any other composer.  They were composed between 1634 and 1641 (the year before theatres were closed by Parliament) for plays staged at venues ranging from the court to the elite Blackfriars and Pheonix public theatres.  Far from being songs merely interpolated into plays, these settings have in the vast majority of instances been shown to play a dramatic role within the context of the action, a topic that is the subject of a fascinating essay by Julia K. Wood in the collection already cited.  Today one can only guess at the theatrical effect made by Lawes play-lyrics, but judging from the highly dramatic and recitative-like "Ye Fiends and Furies" from Davenant’s The Unfortunate Lovers it must in such instances have been considerable.  The song has a supernatural horror that presages the downfall of the lecherous King Hildebrand, who whilst awaiting a lady hears it prefaced by "strange music", sounds he describes as "not very amorous".  The irony thus established therefore, as Wood puts it, “creates suspense and establishes and heightens an atmosphere of grim foreboding”.


The first of Lawes' works to appear in  print were 30 of his 3-part psalm settings published by Henry Lawes in 1648, a collection that also included the same number of psalms by Henry, ten canons by William and several of the elegies commemorating his death. These psalms, which comprise the bulk of William's extant sacred works, are chamber anthems with continuo accompaniment, ideally suited to the peripatetic court chapel. Particularly effective are dark-hued settings such as 'Out of the horrour of the deep' and 'How like a Widow', the desolation of the latter conveyed in affective word-painting and bleak dissonance, a mood providing a vivid contrast to the strongly projected affirmation of such psalms as 'Praise the Lord'.



The violent premature death of William Lawes unquestionably robbed England of a composer who would have played a major part in the re-establishment of musical activity that took place after the Restoration.  As it is his status within his own country remains oddly ambivalent.  Lawes is a composer whose enigmatic romantic genius is recognised by a few passionate advocates, but remains to this day largely uncelebrated by a nation that steadfastly persists in refusing to recognise the riches of its musical heritage.




The major work on Lawes remains Murray Lefkowitz’s pioneering study William Lawes (London, 1960).  In more recent years David Pinto has done much valuable work on the instrumental works.  His For ye violls,  a study of Lawes’ consorts and dance music is available from Fretwork Editions, 16 Teddington Park Road, Teddington, Middlesex TW11 8ND, U.K..  William Lawes 1602-1645: Essays on his Life, Times and Work (Aldershot, 1998) is a valuable addition to a restricted bibliography and includes a detailed account of the confusing events surrounding the death of Lawes (Layton Ring: “The Death of William Lawes during the Battle of Rowton Heath at the Siege of Chester”).  Some of the other essays, taken from papers read at an Oxford conference on Lawes in 1995, will be of more interest to the specialist than the general reader. A more recent study of the instrumental music is The Consort Music of William Lawes, 1602-1645 by John Cunningham (2010)


This original version of this article appeared in Goldberg Early Music Magazine, no. 6 (1999). All applications for its reproduction should be addressed to the author, Brian Robins.  









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